Today in War: August 9
Posted by Nick Milne on August 9, 2010
Three items of note, today; two from antiquity and one from our marvelous modern age.
The first two have a sort of thematic resonance, as these things often do. One more or less inaugurated the rise of the Roman Empire; the other is about as clear an emblem of that Empire’s collapse as one might wish to find.
On August 9th, 48 BC, the forces of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (hereafter Pompey, as he is commonly called) clashed with those of his erstwhile colleague Gaius Julius Caesar at Pharsalus, in what is now central Greece. Caesar’s troops were battle-hardened veterans under a commander who had already demonstrated his brilliance time and again, but they were greatly outnumbered – roughly two to one – by those of Pompey. The battle was one of the most critical of the Civil War that recently engulfed Rome, and, coming as it did after a draining winter standoff, it was more or less decisive.
It turned, as so many battles do, on the presumption of one side and the deception of the other. Pompey was rightly aware that Caesar’s cavalry was minimal (Pompey’s outnumbered it seven to one), and, if it could be routed or destroyed early on, his own could easily sweep to the rear of Caesar’s under-strength infantry and perpetrate the sort of massive, lopsided slaughter which was often the hallmark of the warfare of the Greco-Roman era. Caesar, as aware of the value of open ears as of open eyes, got wind of this plan far in advance, and deployed light infantry units behind his massed cavalry, waiting out of sight with pikes and so on. This constituted a devastating trap for Pompey’s cavalry while having the equally useful effect of making Caesar’s infantry capabilities seem sparser than they actually were.
By the time the lines actually met, Pompey’s cavalry had been ordered to perpetrate the hoped-for foolhardy attack. The results were exactly as Caesar had predicted: the sudden appearance of light troops as Caesar’s cavalry broke of on both sides partially encircled Pompey’s horsemen, who, fleeing in confused panic, were easily dispatched. This spectacle proved so disheartening, and its implications so brutally obvious, that Pompey’s infantry broke formation and withdrew with all seemly (often unseemly) haste.
The results were as dramatic as the victory. Pompey, forced to flee to Egypt, was subsequently assassinated by agents of then-Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. The path was more or less clear for Caesar, and he began in earnest the rise to absolute power that was to have such shocking and far-reaching consequences.
Nothing lasts forever, though.
The Gothic War of 376-382 AD saw the Eastern Roman Empire fight an unsought and weary battle with the military wing of those Goths who, recently displaced by invading Huns, had been (falsely) promised that they could settle in the far reaches of Roman territory without being harassed. It was an incredibly stupid conflict which neither side especially wanted and which would have nothing much in the way of positive consequences. Troops were slowly amassed on both sides, reinforcements were called in from the Western Empire, the Gothic general Fritigern showed himself to be quite deft in his capacities, and the Eastern Emperor Valens, feeling left out and weary of the constant, profitless skirmishes, decided to take personal command of his armies in the field with the hope of finishing the thing once and for all.
And so, on August 9th, 378 AD, the Eastern Roman army under Valens – who was outnumbered and who ignored both Fritigern’s offer of peace and a request from the Western Emperor Gratian (whose armies were swiftly approaching to offer reinforcements) to wait – attacked the tired but furious Gothic forces near the city of Adrianople.
It was a terrible idea, as you might expect. Many of Valens’ advisers counseled caution, agreeing wholeheartedly to the notion of waiting for Gratian. It seems, though, that Valens wanted the victory for himself, and, underestimating the size of the Gothic forces due to incomplete intelligence, decided that an immediate strike was the favourable order of action. The forces under his command were excellent, to be sure; some of the finest fighters in all Europe. But they weren’t miracle-workers.
Everything militated against success. The location of Fritigern’s camp many miles north of the city meant that Valens and his men had to march for hours over rough terrain before they could even begin the battle. The Goths had been able to choose the field, and they chose it well; their main infantry force took shelter within an enormous wagon circle on top of a hill, while admittedly minimal cavalry patrolled the hill’s base. They had even set the grass on fire as soon as the Romans entered visual range, making even the Roman arrival on the field a matter of confused disarray.
It was Valens’ hope to use his own considerable cavalry to take the hill on both flanks, burning the wagon circle and routing the Gothic infantry. As the circle also contained the Goths’ families and possessions, this would have constituted a more than ordinarily powerful blow had it been successfully struck. Unfortunately for Valens, the rest of the Gothic cavalry – of which he had been entirely unaware and which had been elsewhere up until that moment – returned to the field and routed both wings of their Roman counterparts just as the horsemen were about to ascend the hill.
The Roman cavalry could not regroup upon reaching the friendly infantry lines, and the Goths, hitting the Roman infantry unhindered on both flanks as the Gothic infantry pressed in turn from the front, sent the Romans into shameless flight. Roman losses were severe – some 15,000 men and the Emperor Valens himself – but the consequences were severer still. The Goths were left free to roam the Eastern Empire more or less unimpeded, taking or destroying what they wished. It’s perhaps a testament to their character that they did not choose to simply finish the East off completely, instead being willing to forge an uneasy alliance with Valens’ successor and becoming an enormous – though never well-integrated – part of the Eastern Empire’s population. The Roman border and the character of what one might find within it had hitherto been porous, but distinct; thereafter, anything was possible.
Incidentally, the death of Valens had theological consequences as well. Valens was the last of the Roman emperors to fervently hold Arian leanings, and with his death – and the Nicene orthodoxy of his successor, Theodosius I – the Arian heresy was more or less on the way out as a major threat to the doctrinal integrity of the nascent Christendom. At least until the next such threat would come along, naturally.
And of course, on August 9th, 1945, forces operating under the control of the United States devastated the Japanese city of Nagasaki with the dropping of “Fat Man,” a 21-kiloton atomic bomb – the second (and last) such weapon ever deployed against human beings. The bomb killed roughly as many people in seconds as died at both of the battles above described. And that was only at first.
I have next to nothing to say about this. Only a shocked silence seems adequate, somehow.